Meet Your Neighbor: Mona Sampath Khan
By bayareadesi team on 10 Mar 2011
Mona Sampath as many of us know her is a dance choreographer, instructor & Bollywood fitness GURU. The name has become the closest synonym for anything Bollywood in the San Francisco Bay Area. From Shahrukh to Ranbir, Karishma to Shilpa & Akki (Akshay Kumar) to A.R. Rehman, all have danced on her tune. We have seen her spectacular dance sequences and known her as an amazing artist, today let's get to know Mona's personal side as she talks to Bay Area Desi about all things bay!!
Tell us a bit about yourself?
Born and raised in Mumbai, I am a hardcore Mumbai-ite! I honestly cannot remember how and when I took to dancing, but my parents tell me that I started dancing as soon as I started walking. My parents are essentially from South India, so most mornings, like any typical South Indian household start with “Suprabhatham” playing on the tape recorder followed by the Beatles, Elvis, Harry Belafonte and Hindi film songs.
I formally trained in Bharatnatyam for about nine years, and then went on to pursue other forms of dance with choreographers like Bosco Ceasar, Javed Jaffrey, Longines (choreographer of the song “Jai ho” from Slumdog Millionaire!) and more! Before I realized it, I was helping out with creating the choreography for A.R Rahman’s first live concert, dancing on stage with Bollywood stars like Akshay Kumar, Shilpa Shetty, Karishma Kapoor and others.
Simultaneously I was pursuing degree in Business Management which was hard, but I graduated, thanks to all my friends. After that I had a choice of either pursuing a dance career right away in Mumbai or studying further and getting a Masters degree. I chose the latter purely because I knew that dance would be in my life eventually, and more knowledge would do no harm. So I left Mumbai with a heavy heart and came to America to pursue my MBA.
After completion of MBA in 2002, I began to brainstorming on how I could create a career for myself that revolved around dance and stumbled upon the India Community Center in Milpitas, CA. Within days of my first meeting with the founders, I started their first Bollywood Dance and Fitness class. In 2009, I founded Mona Khan Company and rest is history
How long you have been in Bay Area? And what do you like about here?
Since 2002! Love the diversity of the Bay Area – be it the people, the culture, the cuisines, or the activities! From cherry picking, to wine tasting, to trekking, to Bollywood dance classes – everything is so easily accessible and available. Not to mention the fabulous weather. I spent a year and a half in the east cost, and the weather there made me want to run back to Mumbai!
Tell us something about Mona Sampath Dance Company? What is its goal?
It is now called the Mona Khan Company! We are essentially a Bollywood Dance, Fitness and Entertainment Company. We aspire to spread the culture of Bollywood through our dance and fitness classes to as many places in the world as possible. We also aim to entertain and inspire people across all age groups and ethnicities through our performances and events.
What kind of dances do you teach? Which one is your favorite?
Under the umbrella of Bollywood Dance, we embrace all dance forms which is the beauty of being in this space. From Indian Traditional, Classical, Folk, and Film dance to all the Western/Global dance forms, we do it all!
When it comes to favoritism, it changes from day to day. When I see the troupe doing a Jazz piece, I feel like that’s my favorite dance style. The next day, when they rehearse a routine like “Munni Badnam hui”, I feel like this is the one, and then in evening when I see a rendition of “Aaja Nachle”, I feel like that’s it! So I guess it is safe to say that I do not have a favorite style, I like them all!
Can anyone join your class? Are there any restrictions, like age?
Anyone and everyone can join the class. We have students in our “baccha” party class who are as young as three and then we have our Jollywood troupe who are as young as eighty! This is why we love what we do. We get the opportunity to interact, share and learn from various age groups be it kids, juniors, teens, adults or seniors! And dance is the apparatus that enables us to achieve this.
You have worked with some of the biggest stars like Shahrukh Khan, Ranbir Kapoor…How does it feel performing with them?
Working with superstars like Shahrukh (I can safely say that I am one of his biggest fans!!!) and Ranbir is always exciting for the dancers and the team. Both these stars have dynamic personalities and they work really hard.
Stars always add a certain zing to the performance. For the dancers, this becomes an added bonus, as they draw more energy from the audience and the actors and eventually give an even more dazzling performance! But no matter who they are performing with stars or without stars, our dancers just love performing! It’s about being on stage and giving it all you got!
How was your experience in “America’s Got Talent” (See Video below)?
It was an out-of-this-world experience! There was so much talent, so much professionalism and so much mutual respect at AGT amongst the performers; it was incredible! Besides the experience of being around and amidst the best in America, it taught us a lot about the significance of collaboration, discipline, training and humility.
One thing that definitely surprised me and our entire team was the modesty of the entire crew of the America’s got talent show. There was such an open flow of information about various aspects of show business/reality TV and we got to learn so much from the AGT experience.
What challenges or difficulties are you facing?
Though bollywood dance has got a lot more visibility in North America post the success of the movie Slumdog Millionaire still it is not considered a main-stream dance form. To some, it is still a hip shaking, running-around-the-tree type of dance. Over the years, bollywood has redefined itself in every aspect and dancing has become so much more technical, intricate and innovative. There are still several pockets of the world that are untouched and unaware of the heritage, the talent and the uniqueness of Bollywood! We consider this as one of our challenges and our team is committed to create more awareness and authenticity of this dance form, even as we continue to redefine it.
What does future holds for you?
I am very curious to know myself :-) At this point, we are simply focused on growing our dance classes and our fitness program, so more people across all age groups and ethnicities can experience, share and enjoy the culture of bollywood.
Do you feel bay area locals have been supportive of your endeavor?
We would not be where we are without the support, loyalty and encouragement of the Bay Area community. From individuals to organizations, everyone has recognized and encouraged us enormously. We thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts for standing by us through this journey. We get numerous calls from our students about potential events that we could be a part of and our community always gives us priority when it comes to their entertainment needs. Our students come back to our classes’ year after year. What more could we ask for!
What organizations and groups are you a part of?
India Community Center in Milpitas – we have been affiliated with the ICC since 2003! and Jeena, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping children with developmental disorders and their families. Dance is therapeutic and we believe that the children of Jeena can overcome many of their limitations and more importantly, feel confident and loved through our dance classes. The children of Jeena are also part of our company showcases. To see these children rock the stage is easily the most gratifying and heartwarming experience!
Who is your favorite choreographer?
Too many marvelous choreographers out there, so really cannot pick one! We are fortunate to have so much talent around us in our life time.
What are some of your favorite things to do in the Bay? Favorite places to eat?
Love watching live shows and concerts from our popular Bollywood stars and singers, and legendary artists like A R Rahman, Zakir Hussain, to revolutionary companies like Cirque du Soleil. Some of my favorite concerts in the Bay Area – “Santana” live, “Madonna- Confessions tour”, “Sunidhi Chauhan”, and “Unforgettable tour” with Amitabh Bachchan.
Other favorite things include exploring new restaurants with my friends who absolutely love food and wine tasting in Napa/Sonoma.
There are too many amazing places in bay Area and we are really fortunate when it comes to food choices. I am biased towards restaurants that have live band. Great music and yummy food together is the perfect combination!
Xeni’s (Ethiopian restaurant) in Cupertino has got delicious food and a nice homely feel. Then I love all the Indian-Pakistani “addas” in the bay area. You land up smelling like Butter Chicken by the time you leave these places, but it’s totally worth it!
You do shows all over the country, how do you manage personal and professional life?
There is no personal and professional life – there is only one life and it’s called the “Dance of Life” (I am not trying to be dramatic here, I really do mean it). When you absolutely love what you do, there is really no reason to draw the line between personal and professional life according to me.
If you had one piece of advice for South Asians, what would it be?
I may have some valuable advice to give 20 years from now. At this point, I am in a better position to take advice from all the bright South Asians around me :-)
But there is one great piece of advice that I got from my mentors and I would like to share that with everyone: “You got to do what you love. If you love what you do, then great, else keep looking”. Thank you to all those who helped me discover my love for the performing arts.